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University after shielding – a student’s view

Jamie talks about going back to university for his third year, and the likely impact of coronavirus on university life.

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Jamie is a third year medical student on maintenance treatment for ALL

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Jamie (21) is a medical student at Glasgow University. He was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) when he was 17 and was treated with a stem cell transplant. He’s now on maintenance therapy with a targeted cancer drug called imatinib. You can hear more from Jamie and others in our blood cancer and young adults section.

In March 2020, lockdown started and I had to complete my second year of university at home. I’d been put on the shielding patient list because I’ve had ALL and I’m still on maintenance treatment. Also my neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) are sometimes low, which may mean it’s harder for me to fight off infections. But it’s difficult to know whether you’re really high risk, or whether you’re on the shielding list just because you meet the criteria on paper.

My healthcare team told me to be careful, so I followed the shielding guidance as best I could for nine long weeks.

My mum and stepdad are key workers, but as we don’t have a huge amount of space, distancing from the rest of the family wasn’t realistic. By mid-June, I perceived the risk as being lower and I started meeting up with friends in the park, and then in pubs once they’d reopened.

Some of my friends feel guilty about going out because they think they might not know they have coronavirus and give it to an older person. I feel differently, I suppose because I’m as much at risk as anyone.

Most students in Glasgow this year have got online lectures and face-to-face seminars for groups of around ten. Third year med students have got online lectures and seminars on Zoom for the first term, so that’s good for me.

I’m sharing a flat with two friends who also have health conditions, so they have a similar awareness of the risks from coronavirus.

In February I’m due to start clinical placements, but I’m not going to worry about that in advance – having ALL has changed my perspective and I’m much more relaxed about things than I was before.

My top tips for first year university students:

  1. Separation anxiety: As a blood cancer patient you’ve probably had a period of time when you were completely dependent on your family. So something you might not expect is how much of a wrench it can be to separate from your family. My advice is don’t try to tough it out – go home as often as you can.
  2. Making friends: You may be worried about meeting people and making friends with so much teaching online, but you’ll still have the opportunity to meet people in your halls of residence. Having blood cancer can make you feel less confident socially but remember that everyone starting university is in the same boat, and that most people are good people. I found uni different from school – people were more mature, less judgemental and generally easier to get on with.
  3. Your healthcare team: If you’re worried about something, whether it’s physical or emotional or both, don’t be afraid to talk to your healthcare team about it. They’re still an important part of your support network.

How things will be different this year

I think my third year will be very different from the first two. I might drift away from my cohort because I won’t see them at lectures. That’s OK, though. I have supportive friends and my social life will probably focus on my two flatmates. I also plan to take trips home to see friends who were there for me throughout my treatment.

Study-wise, it might be easy to fall behind because I won’t be as aware of what other people are doing, so I’ll have to be extra disciplined. But I’ve definitely found advantages to online learning over the past few months. Pre-recorded lectures and slides are available at the beginning of the week, so I’ve been working through them at my own pace, often in pyjamas.

You find you have more time when you don’t have to get ready and travel to lectures, and you’re less knackered.

After my stem cell transplant in December 2017, I couldn’t walk. In February 2018 I was still on crutches, and then in September I was at university. You don’t realise beforehand how much walking’s involved in getting to classes, and my stamina was still very low. So having teaching online does give you time to recover, especially if you’re suffering from fatigue because of the cancer or your treatment.

Even after you’ve finished treatment for blood cancer, you tend to pick up bugs easily. When I lived in halls in my first year, I seemed to have a permanent cold. But because of the pandemic, people are much more aware of hygiene and distancing. So this will help us all avoid other infections besides coronavirus.

Boredom makes you focus more on background worry about coronavirus and dwell on your fears – that’s why lockdown was so difficult. So I’ll need to keep busy, but that’s not been a problem so far, and I’m determined that’s one way my third year won’t be any different!

Life as a young adult with blood cancer

Watch young adults talk about their experiences of blood cancer, work and education

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